Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Clunky prose vs predictable/uninteresting prose

A week or two ago, when I first posted about Lindsay Buroker’s EMPEROR’S EDGE series, a commenter named Kim said that she tried the first book but found the prose unreadably “clunky.”

Huh, I said, and started to pay attention to whichever of Buroker’s books I was on at the time, to see what was “clunky” about the prose. And I found out something really interesting about myself as a reader! Which only goes to show, because I wouldn’t have thought there were many surprises left in that direction.

Here is what I realized: clunky writing does not bother me all that much in a story which is fast paced and has snappy dialogue. If those elements are in place, I can and do read right over writing that is unquestionably clunky.

I am defining “clunky,” btw, as prose that sometimes shows wrong word choices, wrong verb tense choices, awkward phrasing, etc — the sorts of things that prevent the reading experience from being smooth. For me, the opposite of clunky prose is not necessarily beautiful prose, but invisible prose. Also, I’m defining “snappy dialogue” as involving unpredictability and humor. The opposite of snappy is boring, trite, or predictable.

I was surprised to find that under the right circumstances, I can read past some clunky writing in an otherwise good book. Probably there are limits — I’m sure there are limits — but I would have thought that clunky prose would bother me all the time no matter what, whereas it turns out this is not the case.

So I went back to a book which a lot of other people have liked but which I found impossible to finish, STOLEN SONGBIRD by Danielle Jensen. Even after a real try at getting into it, I found it unreadable. Part of this was a protagonist who to me seemed annoyingly incompetent and histrionic, but a lot of the problem was the actual writing. And I realized that what actually bothers me more than clunky writing is predictable, uninteresting writing, especially dialogue. I had not realized this. To illustrate what I mean, let me contrast these two books. But let me start by emphasizing that:

a) I really like Buroker’s EMPEROR’S EDGE series! Enough to read eight books and a scattering of novellas and short stories.

b) Many reviewers I respect, and with whose taste I often agree, loved Jensen’s STOLEN SONGBIRD. Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe gave it an 8 out of 10. Ria at Bibliotropic refers to the writing as “engaging and fluid.”

Thus indicating once more that, as we are all aware, readers’ mileage will vary when it comes to all kinds of writing.

Okay, so having said that, here is a tidbit from BENEATH THE SURFACE, The Emperor’s Edge 5.5:

Tactfully, Evrial decided not to mention that Amaranthe and her team had committed numerous crimes, crimes that might have one day been justified if it’d come out that they’d been working to protect the rightful emperor from assassins and usurpers, but that now that Sespian was just one of more than a half-dozen people with enough royal blood to make a claim on the throne . . .

I think this sentence could justifiably be called “clunky.” In case you are curious, here is how I would suggest rewording the sentence:

Tactfully, Evrial decided not to mention that Amaranthe and her team had committed numerous crimes, crimes that might one day prove to have been justified if it came out that they’d been working to protect the rightful emperor from assassins and usurpers. Although now that Sespian had been shown to be just one of more than half a dozen people with a possible claim on the throne . . .

So I think mainly this is a verb tense thing, and also I would cut that one long sentence in half. Not that I am unalterably opposed to long sentences, but in this case I don’t think the length is this sentence’s friend.

Now, here is a section that shows what I mean by fun, unexpected dialogue:

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Amaranthe said. “I certainly appreciate his solicitude, but I’m concerned he’s seeing me as some frail, broken being not capable of taking care of herself anymore.”
“Solicitude?” Evrial asked, her mind snagging on that word. “From . . . Sicarius?”
Amaranthe hesitated, as if she held some secret she wasn’t sure she should be sharing. “Not so as most people would notice it, but yes.”
That was hard to believe. “Was that [just now] an example of it?” . . .
“No, that was protective looming.”
“All right . . . ”
Amaranthe cleared her throat. “Enough girl talk. There are enemy cabins full of dastardly old ladies that we must infiltrate.”
“Unbelievable,” Evrial murmured.
“What is?”
“That you can say things like that and still get those men to rally behind you.”

Amaranthe frequently seems to really be enjoying herself with melodramatic lines that no one is expected to take seriously. This really appeals to me. I enjoy her melodrama right along with her. There are so many examples it’s hard to choose, but here’s another:

“I do not believe [Sespian] would accept a peace offering from me.”
Yes, although Sespian hadn’t pulled any more weapons on Sicarius, their new relationship wasn’t off to a brilliant start. . . . “You have to keep trying,” Amaranthe said. “Be friendly in the face of his dark glares, and he’ll eventually grow weary of rejecting you. Why, just look at us. In a short ten months of sparkling smiles and effervescent one-sided conversations, I thawed your icy exterior and got you to profess your undying love for me.”
Sicarius blinked slowly.
“It’s possible we remember the events a little differently,” Amaranthe said. “The female mind has an interesting way of filtering reality.”
“Yours certainly does,” Sicarius said, a hint of dry humor finally infusing his tone.

But it’s not just Amaranthe. Everyone gets to have fun dialogue. Even Sicarius, who barely says anything, but certainly everyone else. This, I’m almost sure, is what carries me through the story.

In contrast, check out this bit from near the beginning of STOLEN SONGBIRD:

A cloaked rider blocked the road.
My heart leapt. Fleur wheeled around and I laid the ends of my reins to her haunches. “Hah!” I shouted as she surged forward.
“Cécile! Cécile, wait! It’s me!”
A familiar voice. Gentler this time, I reined in and looked over my shoulder. “Luc?”
“Yes, it’s me, Cécile.” He trotted over to me, pulling back his hood to reveal his face.
“What are you doing sneaking about like that?” I asked. “You scared the wits out of me.”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t certain it was you at first. Sorry about the eggs [you dropped].”
An apology that didn’t explain at all why he’d been lurking in the bushes in the first place.
“I haven’t seen you in quite some time. Where have you been?” I asked the question even though I knew the answer. His father was gameskeeper on an estate not far from our farm, but several months ago, Luc had taken off for Trianon. My brother and other townsfolk had caught wind that Luc had had a bit of luck betting on the horses and playing at cards, and was now living the high life spending his winnings.
“Here and there,” he said, riding around me in a circle. “The gossips say you’re moving to Trianon to live with your mother.”
“Her carriage is coming for me tomorrow.”
“You’ll be singing then. On stage?”
“Yes.”
He smiled. “You always did have the voice of an angel.”
“I need to get home,” I said. “My gran’s expecting me – my father, too.” I hesitated and looked down the road. “You may ride with me, if you like.” I rather hoped he wouldn’t accept, but riding was better than standing here alone with him.
“Today is your birthday, isn’t it?” His horse sidled tight against mine
I frowned. “Yes.”
“Seventeen. You’re a woman now.” He looked me up and down as though inspecting something that could be bought and sold. A horse at market. Or something worse. He chuckled softly to himself and I cringed.
“What’s so funny?” My heart raced, my instincts telling me that something was terribly wrong. Please, someone come down the road.

Too many phrases in this are cliched for my taste. My heart leapt, you scared the wits out of me, living the high life, the voice of an angel. Besides the cliches, every line seems predictable and boring.

The heroine also seems like kind of an idiot, though I’m not sure that comes through in this snippet. She’s scared, but she nevertheless pauses and chats. When Luc assaults her, as he does a moment later, she is ineffectual in her response. Ineffectual and emotional are two qualities she has in spades, and I just don’t like her. But that’s not the biggest problem I had when I tried to get into the story; the uninteresting writing was the bigger problem. I read about 100 pages of this book before giving up. Then I gave it to a friend for his teenage daughter. I hope she loves it, and I do think she will, but it’s not for me.

So, anyway. Thoughts on clunky and awkward vs boring and predictable? Have you ever noticed that one type of writing bothers you more than the other? If you’d declare that both bother you equally, are you sure? If you haven’t tried THE EMPEROR’S EDGE, let me remind you that it’s free on Kindle. If you do try it, let me know what you think: do you find it catchy, or is it not for you?

Now that I try, I can think of other authors whose stories I enjoy even though their writing isn’t necessarily that good. How about you?

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6 Comments Clunky prose vs predictable/uninteresting prose

  1. Elaine T

    I still haven’t gotten past the start of the Kindle sample of EMPEROR’s EDGE (the Teen insists I read an 800k word fanfiction which actually is very readable but long), but I agree it has an engaging quality that SONGBIRD doesn’t. I also found SONGBIRD uninteresting, mainly, I verbalized, because the girl was an ineffectual twit. The writing probably helped, though.

    I usually notice writing when it is either wrong, or especially engaging. Blah, like the sample above just gets put back down without analysis.

    My example ‘bad writer’ is E.R. Burroughs – you know, the author of TARZAN? – I can put his work down, now, but he does have the page turner gift, even when I’m cringing at the writing. I’m sure there are more modern ones, but they aren’t coming to mind.

    I remember 0books by Sarah Ash and Jenna Rhodes where the writng carried it, the situation was pure cliche.

    Rowling’s writing is fine, and her dialogue engaging and charming… it’s the worldbuilding that falls apart.

  2. Mary+Anne

    Hah! I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t like “Stolen Songbird” very much. Had heard so many good things about it. But I found it kind of draggy and boring and I never felt a “click” with the main character.

    And I really enjoy most of Lindsay Buroker’s books. I don’t even know that I would call her writing clunky. It’s more conversational in tone. Awkward grammar and all. Because I know it drives me absolutely batcrap when I read something that is chockful of sentences that could be used in that part of the SATs where you have to pick the one good sentence from 4 mostly terrible ones. And what you are reading would definitely not fit in the correct choice category.

    What I do notice is when I am reading an author who writes invisibly or beautifully with great characters and plot, and then move to someone less skilled (or talented, or with a less meticulous editor). Maybe clunky is the word I’m looking for here. Kind of like going from driving my sister’s BMW to my Hyundai. Usually my Hyundai is just fine, but after the BMW, I notice the bumps in the road and the slow pick-up of the engine a lot more when I get back in my Hyundai.

  3. Rachel

    I agree completely about Rowlings. Fine writing at the sentence level, worldbuilding with terrible holes. That doesn’t actually bother me; I can just accept the worldbuilding is ridiculous and enjoy the books for their strength.

  4. Rachel

    Mary Anne, great point, I’m sure you’re right that reading great prose sets you up to find less-good prose jarring. Also, I should probably avoid driving anybody’s BMW; I’m not sure my car would appreciate the contrast!

  5. Pete Mack

    I read Emperor’s Edge a while back. I stopped reading the series basically because of clunky prose. This is probably a result of self-publication: there is insufficient intervention by an outside editor, or even a copy-editor.

    That said, I have no interest in reading the boring prose you posted later.

  6. Maureen E

    OH THANK GOODNESS. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t manage to finish Stolen Songbird. It was just so boring, characters, plot, writing and all.

    However, based on the samples, I would find Buroker a bit hard to read. The dialogue is really fun! But the awkwardness of some of the phrasing in the narrative would tend to bump me out of the story. Which really shows that it takes an excellent writer to write the kind of invisible prose you’re talking about.

    My favorite kind of prose is understated and almost invisible, until the author hits you with a perfect simile or image. Megan Whalen Turner is really good at this (and also at images that mean more than one thing, or which have different shades of meaning on re-reads).

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